How do we know that our senses are telling us the truth? Do we even know what truth is? You’re not alone if you don’t have the answers to these questions. The philosophy of Rationalism can help you out. Rationalism in its most basic sense deals with understanding how the world works and figuring out the meaning of life through reason and logic without reference to supernatural intervention or faith in unseen entities like gods or demons. It’s an important philosophy because it grounds knowledge and ethics in human values instead of superstition and tradition.
Rationalism is a system of philosophy or view that reason is the primary source and test of knowledge. A rationalist seeks to attain knowledge through reason rather than authority, mysticism, or revelation. In politics, rationalists may seek individual liberty from oppressive governments or social institutions. They support human rights such as freedom of speech and freedom of thought and expression.
Some of the rationalist philosophers are Thomas Hobbes, John Locke, Baruch Spinoza, René Descartes, and Gottfried Leibniz. While there are very few people in modern times who identify themselves as rationalists (more often identifying themselves as deontologists). They have exerted considerable influence over Western philosophy. Since their time period during Europe’s Enlightenment era starting in roughly 1600 CE.
Rationalism, broadly speaking, refers to a philosophy that holds reason as its source of knowledge. The term was coined by philosopher Pierre Bayle in his work The Dictionary Historical and Critical in 1697. He defined it as Rationalists who believe that we are able to know everything if we use our reason well. This has also been stated by Immanuel Kant. He believed rationalists were people who claim they can know things with certainty. At least think they do, though their knowledge cannot be proven through sense experience or empirical testing. A notable example of a rationalist is Aristotle.
How it started
Rationalism, at its core, simply refers to a method of thinking. Its root is in math and logic—and it prioritizes reason over emotion. However, within philosophical circles, there are two primary strains of rationalist aspects: Empiricism and Rationalism. In short, Empiricists tend to believe that we can only trust our senses. Rationalists believe that things aren’t as simple as they seem (it’s really a lot more complicated than that).
British philosopher John Locke represents one of history’s earliest forms of empiricism; French philosopher René Descartes represents an early rationalist approach to thought. Ironically, both Descartes and Locke made significant contributions to modern-day empiricism!
Who proposed the idea?
The work of Rene Descartes (1596–1650) has been highly influential on subsequent Western philosophy. It affected especially metaphysics, epistemology, logic, and theory of mind. He famously rejected both natural philosophy about physical nature (as exemplified by Galileo Galilei) and moral philosophy (as exemplified by Thomas Hobbes).
His resolutely naturalistic program is based on mechanistic physics. He says I do not accept anything as true if I did not grasp it myself or if it does not follow things that I grasped. In his view, one’s knowledge should be rationally based on evident axioms. His beliefs are visible in nature through thought alone.
The central thesis of rationalism
In Western philosophy, rationalism is a theoretical attitude that emphasizes reason as a source of knowledge and opinion. The rationalist believes that one’s beliefs lie in logic and evidence (see also empirical).
This contrasts with other opinions held by empiricists (those who believe knowledge can only come from sensory experience), idealists (who believe knowledge must come from experience but cannot be reduced to logic or evidence), relativists (who say all points of view are equally valid) and realists (who define what is true by objective standards outside personal belief systems). While rationalism has its historical origins in ancient Greek philosophy, it was given its more specific definition by René Descartes.
All knowledge comes from reason
What anything means depends on one’s personal philosophy and approach to knowledge. Some rationalists (known as epistemological rationalists) take it to mean that there are some things that could never be known, but even they believe all possible knowledge comes from reason.
Others (the ontological rationalists) believe we can in fact know everything about reality; again, what counts as everything depends on each particular theorist. Both groups, however, concur that reason provides us with all of our information about how things are in both nature and society.
Rationalist thinks they are always right
Rationalists are notorious for being straightforward and often arrogant, sometimes even dogmatic. They are also very critical of anyone who thinks otherwise or disagrees with them. While rationalists often believe they have all of life’s answers figured out, their pride can actually limit their success in life because nobody likes to be around someone who constantly behaves as if they are better than everyone else.
The other thing you need to know about rationalists is that they tend to lead very emotionless lives. It means they don’t fall in love easily and struggle to understand emotions like love or empathy. When you meet a rationalist, don’t expect a warm embrace or kind words. Instead, prepare yourself for criticism and a quick quip or two!
Are connected to materialists:
When most people hear rationalism, they assume that it’s just another name for materialism. While there are some similarities, they’re not actually all that similar. Materialists believe that everything, including human beings, comes down to a physical substrate.
Rationalists aren’t necessarily denying the physicality of reality (they tend to fall somewhere on a spectrum between materialist and idealist), but they do believe that we can use reason to know things about ourselves and the world around us. So, what exactly does rational mean anyway? Well…it means you can use reason to know things about yourself and the world around you!
They don’t rule out God completely
You might think that rationalists don’t believe in God, but you’d be wrong. The truth is that there are plenty of things we take on faith. For example, we all trust that an airplane will safely transport us from one city to another. Even though no one has ever come back from a flight to confirm that planes aren’t secretly demons sent to kill us all.
In fact, when it comes to beliefs about how natural phenomena work, rationalists apply a certain set of standards (called Bayesian priors) for what counts as sufficient evidence or sound reasoning before adopting a theory. They also insist on keeping their minds open—it would be unwise not to do so given what we don’t know yet!
Rationalists originally referred to any thinker who emphasized (or claimed special access to) reason and argumentation over authorities such as revelation, intuition, or emotion. It was only later that it took on a specific philosophy in opposition to empiricism and Romanticism: In particular, rationalists believed that philosophy should be based on universal logic and certainty rather than on experience (or sensations). Its founder was Descartes. He says that we can doubt everything except what we see as truth via proof. But he held a special place for God in his belief system. Thus, by definition, all non-religious beliefs come from reasoning. This meant they were not based on faith or emotions but could stand up against skepticism through logical rigor.
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